Multiple-Choice Tests Hinder Critical Thinking. Should They Be Used in Science Classes?

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination.

Multiple-Choice Tests Hinder Critical Thinking. Should They Be Used in Science Classes?

This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here


Meandering into the lecture hall, you take note of the atmosphere. The air is still. But for the faint sounds of shuffling pages, trackpad clicks, and anxiety-laced whispering, the room is silent. You take a seat, separated from your nearest classmate by an empty chair. At face value, the gulf seems superficial, and yet, when the tests are passed out, that distance will become insurmountable. Don't talk. That's cheating! It will be just you, the test, and the bubbles on the answer sheet. Those cursed bubbles...

Anyone who's ever taken a large science class in college is well acquainted with the multiple-choice test. Ingenius in its simplicity, the test comprises a set number of questions, each with a short list of responses. It's up to the test-taker to determine which is correct. Here's an example:

1. Which of the following is one of the major approaches to psychology?

a. psychoanalysis 
b. structuralism 
c. psychiatry 
d. New Age Movement

The testing strategy has been utilized for decades, with few alterations and a tacit resignation to the status quo. To professors, it's an easy, objective, and efficient way to gauge the material comprehension of large numbers of students. To students, though they may view the method as cold and unforgiving, it's a universal standard -- one they're accustomed to -- and it offers a genuine chance to guess the correct answer.

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination. (Filling in tiny bubbles is deceptively difficult.) Since science is not about memorizing and regurgitating facts, why should future scientists be judged in such a fashion?

Compared to memorization, Professor Kathrin Stanger-Hall of the University of Georgia believes that critical thinking skills are far more useful to aspiring scientists, and to students, in general. But sadly, college is seriously inept at teaching these skills. A 2011 study found that 46% of college students did not gain critical-thinking skills during their first two years of college, and 36% had not gained critical-thinking skills after 4 years. Stanger-Hall theorizes that multiple-choice tests contributed to these dismal statistics. In 2012, she tried out a little experiment on two sections of her Introductory Biology class.

Though each section was taught in an identical fashion, one section (consisting of 282 students) was assessed using the traditional multiple-choice-only format, while another (192 students) was assessed with "mixed" mid-term exams of 30 multiple-choice questions and three to four constructed response questions, such as short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or diagram labeling. At the end of the year, each section took final exams that shared 90 of the same multiple-choice questions. Their scores on these questions were compared.

After correcting for students' grade point average, Stanger-Hall found that students in the "mixed" exam section scored significantly higher on the 90 multiple-choice questions than did students in the multiple-choice only section: 67.35% vs. 64.23%. Upon closer examination, Stanger-Hall determined that the difference was mostly due to the fact that students in the "mixed" section firmly outstripped those in the multiple-choice section on higher-level thinking multiple choice questions: 64.4% vs. 59.54%.

"The purpose of this study was to assess whether a multiple-choice-only exam format might hinder the development of higher-level (critical) thinking skills in introductory science students. The answer is a convincing yes," Stanger-Hall summed up (emphasis hers).

According to Stanger-Hall, replacing a significant portion of multiple-choice questions with constructed response questions would be a "cost-effective strategy to significantly improve the critical-thinking skills of college students." But her recommendation is not the only viable option. Social psychologist Joann M. Montepare -- who's taught college classes for 15 years -- urges a slightly different approach, one that she's already put into practice with great success. Multiple-choice tests, she says, are a great evaluative tool. But like any tool, they must be well crafted and correctly employed. Montepare described her creative assessment methods in the October 2005 edition of The Observer:

"Students come to class prepared as they would be for any other multiple-choice exam, take the exam, and then they take it home and review each question to assess whether their answer was indeed the best one. Students can use class notes, readings, and even discuss the questions with their classmates (indeed such collaboration is encouraged). As they do so, they can change their answers. Students return exams during the next class period and the self-corrected version determines their final grade, as follows. For each correct answer (no change) students receive full credit. For each corrected answer (wrong to right), students receive half-credit. Incorrect answers — originally wrong and unchanged, or changed to wrong — receive no credit."

Perhaps the largest benefit of Montepare's method is this: Instead of focusing on memorizing material beforehand, students actively research and collaborate to not only find, but also understand the answers. That sounds a lot more like how science is done.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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